The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden

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The story opens on a March evening, which in northern Rus’ (an earlier portion of what eventually became Russia) means winter has not loosened its grip. The three children of Pyotr Vladimirovich, the local landowner, beg their nurse Dunya for a story. Prompted by their mother, Dunya tells the story of Morozko, the Frost King, who was much feared by the people.

The stepmother of a peasant’s beautiful daughter decides to rid herself of the child by marrying her off to Morozko. Left alone deep in the forest, the girl does indeed meet Morozko who tests her courage with his power over the cold winds.

This is a marvelous way to start the story of Vasya, a fourth child born soon after this scene. Dunya’s story lets us know that this story is going to e a tale, one that draws on myths and legends of Rus’. It also sets up the story to follow.

Even as a child, Vasya—an independent scamp if ever there was one—demonstrates a power that no one else has: she can actually see the chyerti, the spirits that protect the household and horses, that live in the woods and ponds. Others believe in them and leave offerings for them, but only Vasya sees them and talks with them.

When Pyotr brings back a new wife—the children’s mother had died at Vasya’s birth—things begin to change. Anna forbids any recognition of these spirits and brings a beautiful and arrogant priest to their household to preach against this heresy, not just to the family but also to the village.

As crops fail and winter’s cold grows harsher, it becomes apparent that an ancient evil has awakened. Vasya is caught up in its rivalry with his opposite, though he appears to be as ruthless as the evil one and his goodness questionable. Vasya must draw on all of her gifts if she is to protect her family and her village.

It’s an exciting story, graced with vivid characters and stunning descriptions. I particularly liked the way real myths and legends are woven into Vasya’s story, and the sometimes astonishingly original depictions of mystical happenings.

The only thing I missed was Vasya’s internal life. True we get her thoughts and fears, but all her battles are with external forces; she never has to wrestle with herself. She is the same person at the end of the story as she is at the beginning. Though her circumstances have changed, she herself has not. Perhaps this is simply a given of the fairy tale genre, even one aimed at adults.

I had a couple of other minor quibbles—the title did not reflect the story, and some of the minor characters who loom large in early chapters then disappear—but overall I thought it a remarkable achievement, especially for a first novel. I look forward to reading the rest of the trilogy.

Have you read a fantasy novel that incorporated myths and legends in an unusual way?

The Lying Game, by Ruth Ware

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More a suspense novel than a mystery, this 2017 novel from Ruth Ware starts with a body turning up by a tidal estuary on the south coast of England. The next day Isa Wilde, living in North London with her husband and six-month-old daughter, receives a text saying simply “I need you.”

To her husband’s baffled dismay, Isa immediately packs up her baby and leaves for the village of Saltern, where 17 years earlier she had briefly attended a boarding school. There she’d become tight friends with Kate, Thea and Fatima, getting up to all kinds of mischief, sneaking cigarettes and alcohol, slipping out at night.

They also played what they called the lying game. The game had many rules, including points for how persuaded the unfortunate recipient was by their lies. That summer the four of them formed a bond strong enough to bring them back all these years later.

Kate, who sent the text, still lives in Saltern, in a ramshackle building called the Tide Mill on the other side of the Reach—the local name for the estuary—from the school. Her father Ambrose had been the art teacher at the school, enabling Kate to board there. His relaxed bohemian ways left the girls free to escape school regularly to make their way across the Reach to the Mill where they let loose as only 15-year-old girls can, swimming and drinking and exploring.

And confronting something that not only could blow the four apart from each other, such that they had not seen each other for 17 years, but was so explosive a secret that fear of it had haunted them all that time.

The book is more psychological suspense than the runaway train of a thriller. I appreciated the insight into the characters, all of whom we encounter through Isa’s eyes. I was fascinated by the changes in the young women. Fatima has become a doctor and begun practicing her faith, disconcerting the others with her hijab and refusal of alcohol. Kate has become an artist like her father, but barely making enough to hold body and soul together. Thea’s intensity and tendency to anorexia have only increased, while Isa has settled happily into marriage, motherhood, and a civil service job. They all have a lot to lose.

As a writer, I appreciated Ware’s sure-footed ability to take the reader in and out of the past without ever leaving us floundering, wondering what time period we were in. Good transitions and textual clues ensured that we always knew which time period we were in.

I also was impressed by her use of setting. The details we encounter through Isa’s eyes not only create vivid images of the places themselves but also add to the atmosphere and underline themes throughout the book. For example, at one point Isa is describing Saltern village and mentions the fishing nets hung on many of the cottages, presumably to add to the village’s appeal as a tourist destination. However the drooping, grey webs of netting make her wonder how anyone could bear to live enclosed by them.

Another example is the Mill itself. Remembered as a lost paradise, it has decayed through years of neglect to the point where it is not only falling apart, but is actually sinking into the sand. It has gotten so bad that during some high tides the electricity shorts out and the footbridge over the millstream to the land beyond is flooded.

Too much? Readers’ tastes vary, but I enjoyed how Ware could take clichés such as a house built on sand, being caught in a spider’s web, or crossing a treacherous bog and make them work, creating an intense atmosphere and increasing the suspense. The twists and turns of the story make the plot exciting, but more importantly reveal new layers of all of the characters, large and small.

What novel of psychological suspense have you read lately that you’d recommend?

Playlist 2018

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Songs are stories too. And sometimes poetry. And often a comfort to me. Many thanks to my friends for their music.

Fargo, North Dakota, Carter Burwell
Love Theme From Barton Fink, Carter Burwell
My Heart Has Wings, Aengus Finnan
North Wind, Aengus Finnan
Moon On The Water, Aengus Finnan
In the Bleak Midwinter, Bare Necessities
In the Bleak Midwinter, Ryland Angel
St. Margaret’s Hill, Bare Necessities
Old Wife Behind The Fire, Bare Necessities
Hard Times, Gillian Welch
The Way It Will Be, Gillian Welch
Six White Horses, Gillian Welch
Whole Heap a Little Horses, Elizabeth LaPrelle
Pretty Saro. Elizabeth LaPrelle
Black Is the Color, Elizabeth LaPrelle
The Bonny Black Hare, Ian Robb
The Rose of Allandale / Swannanoa, Ian Robb
A Psalm of Life, Jacqueline Schwab
Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, Jacqueline Schwab
Gentle Annie, Jacqueline Schwab
Sous Le Ciel De Paris, 3rd String Trio
Vent D’Automne, 3rd String Trio
Si Bheag, Si Mor, 3rd String Trio

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Mississippi Review

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One of the controversies circulating in the writing world has to do with cultural appropriation. What this buzz word boils down to is writing a story in which the protagonist is from a culture other than your own, one that is underrepresented in the publishing world. It could be a man writing from a female protagonist’s point of view, or a white writer with an Asian, Black, Native American, etc. protagonist.

One side argues that as writers we use our imagination and routinely imagine ourselves into characters unlike ourselves. Not every writer of crime fiction is a serial murderer. E. B. White didn’t have to be a pig to write Charlotte’s Web. Plus creating stories with characters from other cultures increases literary diversity.

The other side argues that you cannot understand someone from another culture as well as a member of that culture can. And by taking advantage of your privileged position to submit stories about already underrepresented cultures, you make it harder for members of those cultures to have their own, more genuine stories published.

I think both sides are right. We writers do use our imagination. We do need more diversity. At the same time, as I said in my review of The Help, I have little patience for unrealistic characters created by someone who obviously knows little about their experience. Of course, writers are free to write about whomever they choose. But I also remember my fury at the way famous white male authors of the last century—Roth, Mailer, etc.—felt free to define not only how a woman felt and thought, but also how she ought to behave. I still remember tearing up a Philip Roth book whose premise was that if the female lead refused sex with the male protagonist, then she must be insane and should be locked up; therefore the man must gaslight her.

Of course we ought to include diverse characters in our cast to reflect the diversity of people in our lives. When we do, it makes sense to do our research: read books by authors from that culture, talk with people from that culture whom we know, find beta readers who can alert us to our mistakes.

This brings us to the Mississippi Review and its Summer 2018 issue (Vol 46 No.s 1 & 2). While most of the stories are pretty good and a couple excellent, there is one that is laughably bad. The male author has his female protagonist, forty-nine and newly widowed, be reminded by washing dishes that she’s not going to be having sex anymore. Doesn’t every woman think about sex while washing dishes? To make things worse, he has her describe the sex she would be missing using slang that no woman would use, an extremely derogatory phrase used by men to describe women they’ve made use of as less than human.

Now if the author were trying to present a sex-obsessed, self-hating woman, such a phrase might work. But no, she is meant to be Everywoman; well, perhaps a not terribly bright Everywoman. When the second such mistake erupted by page four, I gave up on the story. These mistakes are similar to a goof a white writer I know owned up to recently: having her black protagonist’s teenager complain that her mother is “such a slavedriver”. Nope. Wouldn’t happen.

These errors should have disqualified the story, but the editor and associate editors listed in the magazine are all male. Yet another argument for more diversity in the publishing world. The VIDA count is a good way to track gender, race and other factors in publishing.

My intention, though, is to pick on the story, not the magazine. As I said, there are some excellent pieces in this issue. One that I loved transposed the film Chinatown to a circus and the Jack Nicholson character to a clown, which makes sense when you think about it. Another accurately conveys a woman’s struggle with overwhelming grief. Ironically, the story that won their 2018 fiction prize is written from the point of view of a rodeo bull. I have no idea how a bull actually thinks, but I found the story interesting. I hope the author did his research. Perhaps he works with bulls or interviewed those who do.

There is no doubt that we writers are going to write the stories we need to, the ones that grab hold of us and won’t let go. How we weigh their demands against other issues is up to each one of us. But what writer doesn’t want to create the most authentic characters possible, the ones who draw the reader in? Doing our research, learning all we can about each character’s world, consulting experts: these are all part of the writer’s job.

Have you ever been shocked or dismayed by an absurdly unrealistic character in a story?

Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng

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Elena Richardson is living the perfect life in her perfect suburb of Shaker Heights. Although Elena is proud of the suburb’s idealistic beginnings, she’s thankful for its current rule-bound incarnation which fits her own obsessively programmed approach to life.

Well, it would be perfect if it weren’t for her rebellious daughter Izzy. Luckily Elena doesn’t know what her other two children are getting up to. What she does know is that her problems really began when artist and single-mother Mia moves to town with her daughter Pearl. Free-spirited Mia reminds Elena of her own choices and makes her wonder if she’s not missing out on something.

Things really come to a head when Elena’s friends adopt a Chinese baby that was left at a fire station, and Mia champions the baby’s mother who has been searching for her now that she can support her. The issue of cross-cultural adoption is an important one, and the usual arguments for who would be the baby’s best parent are brought out.

Writers are often asked where we get our ideas. A novel can start anywhere: a news article about some incident, a commitment or concern with a particular social issue, even an image of a place or person that demands you delve into what’s going on.

Before you go much further, though, you have to identify your protagonist—the person whose journey we’ll be following—and what they want deep down more than anything else. The best novels give the protagonist both an outer goal, something they are trying to accomplish, and an inner goal, some more personal need. You can make the two complimentary or oppose them, so that succeeding at one means failing at the other.

You also have to identify with what or who is keeping them from their goal: the antagonist. And there’s more: in planning a novel, writers assemble a cast of characters, people who are different from each other yet play off each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

In this story, Ng does a fabulous job of this. Her cast includes pairs of opposites, including mismatched mother-daughter duos and of course the dueling parents. There’s even a setting that enhances the strengths of one of the opposing people and the weaknesses of the other. In fact, it’s almost too carefully planned.

I felt little emotion reading this novel. I was too conscious of the chess pieces being moved around to care much about what happened. It didn’t help that the characters are so one-sided. Mia is all good—a photo of her with Pearl as a baby is even titled Virgin & Child—and Elena all bad. And unrealistic: a single mother who is making a good living as an artist and has no one in her life besides her child and the woman who sells her work? As for Elena, there may be people as strict and cold as she, but I haven’t met any. And I found at least one aspect of the ending not only unbelievable but irresponsible on the author’s part.

There’s another problem with the book. Remember what I said about starting with a protagonist and antagonist? It is unclear who these are. I’ve made it sound like Elena is the first and Mia the second, but most of the people in my book dissection group thought it was the other way around. Or the protagonist could be Pearl. Or maybe Izzy.

That said, there’s a lot of great writing in the book, plus the excellent setup and the important social issue. And many of us struggle with finding the right balance between being wild and being responsible. Most of the people in my group enjoyed the book more than I did. And it’s certainly gotten great reviews.

Have you read a novel that didn’t have a protagonist? Or had more than one?

Collected Poems, by Jane Kenyon

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In any communication there is a sender, a transference medium, and a recipient. When you whisper a secret to a friend, you are the speaker; the medium is the vibration in the air; and your friend is the recipient. For writers, our medium is our written work and our readers the recipients.

Each of these three components affects the content and quality of the communication. In the various discussion groups and critique sessions in which I’ve participated, I’ve been continually impressed by the different interpretations that readers may bring to the same poem or story based on their personal experiences and associations.

For me, reading Jane Kenyon’s poems for the first time has been like falling in love, that moment when you meet someone who seems to be your soulmate, who speaks your language, who knows what you have been through. I recently moved to a different part of the country after spending most of my life in one place. This early poem, about her move to New Hampshire, made me lose my heart to Kenyon’s work.

Here

You always belonged here.
You were theirs, certain as a rock.
I’m the one who worries
if I fit in with the furniture
and the landscape.

But I “follow too much
the devices and desires of my own heart.”

Already the curves in the road
are familiar to me, and the mountain
in all kinds of light,
treating all people the same.
And when I come over the hill,
I see the house, with its generous
and firm proportions, smoke
rising gaily from the chimney.

I feel my life start up again
like a cutting when it grows
the first pale and tentative
root hair in a glass of water.

The initial uncertainty, the gradual familiarisation, the stunning final image: all of these are true to my experience. And as Adrienne Rich so beautifully said in her poem “Planetarium”, the poet “translate(s) pulsations / into images for the relief of the body / and the reconstruction of the mind.”

This book is like a time capsule, holding Kenyon’s intense communiqués. Some read like prayers, some like a succession of images, inviting us to bring our own interpretations. She writes of love and light and herons and wasps, of depression and death and the things that survive or don’t.

Although the language seems simple, it is carefully crafted. An allusion here, a descriptive detail there, internal rhymes and repetition all work to create the music of these works.

One poem that intrigued me is “Briefly It Enters, And Briefly Speaks”. It is a list poem, almost a series of haiku, each starting with “I am”. It begins:

I am the blossom pressed in a book,
found again after two hundred years. . . .

I am the maker, the lover, and the keeper. . .

In trying to understand how this succession of images works as a coherent whole, I discovered subtle transitions: a starving girl to food on a plate to water filling a pitcher to a dry garden to a stone doorstep and inside a “heart contracted by joy. . . .”

I’m grateful to have found this treasure chest of poems that speak to me so clearly and illuminate my heart and give voice to my cares and celebrations. The speaker, the writer, may be gone but she has left us these gems to carry her voice to our ears.

Is there a poet or songwriter you’ve discovered recently whose work seems to speak to you?

Delights & Shadows: Poems, by Ted Kooser

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I hadn’t read any of Ted Kooser’s work before, though I’d certainly heard of him. I opened this early collection at a random spot and started to read rather quickly.

I wasn’t particularly impressed: the rather ordinary language didn’t exactly sing to me and the insights—while making me smile—didn’t make me gasp. However, after a few poems, a sense of well-being stole over me, almost a sense of familiarity. Perhaps I had read them before after all? Or had somehow heard this voice?

I found myself thinking of the title of Alice Munro’s 2012 story collection Dear Life. And of Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir My Beloved World. There was something in this short, seemingly simple poems that I needed. I went back and reread them more carefully.

“Tattoo” recounts a moment at a yard sale: seeing an old man whose tattoo of “a dripping dagger held in the fist / of a shuddering heart—is now just a bruise”, a lingering ache “where vanity once punched him hard”—a brilliant line. Note how the images do double duty: a bruise that is the blurred blue of an old tattoo and also a lingering ache, a punch that vanity requested being also like the needles that poked ink into his skin.

There is no mockery here, only fellow-feeling as the author notes the traces of youthful arrogance. The man is still strong and has “the sleeves of his tight black T-shirt / rolled up to show us who he was,” yet we see him as an old man, “picking up / broken tools and putting them back,” the broken tools again doing double duty. And the final line takes us back to the image at the beginning, now shimmering with all that we have learned about this man and all men in just these few lines.

There is a depth of compassion in these poems and a recognition of the small moments that illuminate what it means to be human. In “At the Cancer Clinic” we see a woman being helped across a waiting room by two others, perhaps her sisters, to where a nurse waits patiently. There’s the slight chuckle at calling the nurse patient, the sympathy at the woman’s slow progress, and then the surprising ending that elevates the scene into an evocation of what is best in all of us.

Another poem I loved is “Skater”. Having myself not started skating until middle age and being quite proud that I finally managed a waltz jump—a baby jump, the easiest of all—I thrilled to this joyous description of landing it, of how that experience changes you. Adding to the joy are the bright colors and the image of her skates braiding a path on the ice, echoing her ponytail in the first line.

My friend Dave has much to say against poetry that seems like prose. When I read the last poem in the book, I thought of him and how this could be prose if written without the line breaks. However, reading it again I saw how the images of time and fading light suggest the idea of aging, even death, with calm acceptance, even perhaps with gratitude for a life well lived.

A Happy Birthday

This evening, I sat by an open window
and read till the light was gone and the book
was no more than a part of the darkness.
I could easily have switched on a lamp,
but I wanted to ride this day down into night,
to sit alone and smooth the unreadable page
with the pale gray ghost of my hand.

Have you read any of Ted Kooser’s poetry? Do you have a favorite poem of his?

Reservoir 13, by Jon McGregor

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McGregor’s latest book is not for everyone. There are no car chases or spies or broken-down police detectives. There isn’t even a traditional protagonist. Reservoir 13 is the story of a village in the Peak District and its surrounding countryside. It’s a story about time, stretching over 13 years with each chapter covering a single year of the village’s life.

In quiet, exquisite prose, McGregor immerses us in this life. Holidays are celebrated, with fireworks at New Year’s and Guy Fawkes Day and a pantomime at Christmas. The agricultural life of the village goes on: haying, getting the cows in for their evening milking, looking for the sheep lost in a snowstorm. Hawthorne blooms; voles burrow under the hedges, fox cubs play outside their den.

Townspeople appear and reappear: a family who get called away from their sheep farm to rebuild bridges knocked out by storms and to do other heavy work around the village, a woman who is barely keeping her head above water caring for her autistic son, a man who visits his aging mother at Christmas and tries to avoid meeting up with his sisters, a woman who helps her elderly neighbor by walking his dog, and many more. In the course of the 13 years we follow children growing into their young adulthood, pairing off, breaking up, finding new loves.

At first I was afraid that I would have trouble following all these different characters, but in fact I had no problem keeping them straight. The author always provided small but necessary clues to remind me of who the person was and their relationship to others.

My only criticism of the book—and it is partially of the author and partly of the publisher—is that it begins with the disappearance of a 13-year-old girl. She and her parents, who are staying in the village over New Year’s, go for a walk and somehow get separated. By starting this way and by the promotional material, it sounds like it’s going to be a mystery, but it is not.

Instead, it is an examination in part—and only in part—of the effect of this event on the life of the town. As you can imagine, while the disappearance dominates the first year, over 13 years it begins to fade to an occasional memory, however much some individuals are changed by it.

The misleading description of the book as being about the girl’s disappearance sets up expectations that detract from the real pleasures to be found here. I almost came to see the disappearance as a clumsy attempt to start with a bang, in media res as we writers are advised to do. Yet nothing else here is clumsy.

I listened to this book. Some stories are better suited for audiobooks than others. I think I would have enjoyed reading it as well, but listening to it provided a sweet, almost trance-like pleasure. I started listening to it on a road trip but it was a little too quiet. However, during peaceful times at home or those sleepless hours in the middle of the night, it was exactly the right thing. I must have listened to it four times over by now. I even go back to chapters out of order now that I know the story. I never tire of it.

I love the rhythm of the year, the description of nature’s cycles, and the cycles of peoples lives: divorces, deaths, first loves. One of McGregor’s techniques to reinforce these cycles is to repeat certain phrases or sentences with slight variations. I love the image of the river that runs through town that turns over itself under the bridge and carries plumes of dirt over the weir. It reminds me of the quote from Heraclitus (as translated in my edition of The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations) “You can’t step twice into the same river.” We see the four children we see grow into young adults trying to do just that as their own personal ritual. Another interpretation of Heraclitus’s thought

. . . is not that all things are changing so that we cannot encounter them twice, but something much more subtle and profound. It is that some things stay the same only by changing. One kind of long-lasting material reality exists by virtue of constant turnover in its constituent matter. Here constancy and change are not opposed but inextricably connected. A human body could be understood in precisely the same way, as living and continuing by virtue of constant metabolism–as Aristotle for instance later understood it. On this reading, Heraclitus believes in flux, but not as destructive of constancy; rather it is, paradoxically, a necessary condition of constancy, at least in some cases (and arguably in all).

McGregor’s remarkable story embodies this paradox. It is told in both linear and circular time—a remarkable achievement. The mystery here is not so much the disappearance of the girl, but the mystery of time, the center of this paradox of change and constancy.

This is not a book to rush through. It is a book to savor. it happens rarely, but sometimes I will read the first page of a book and think to myself: OK stop. You need to slow down and take your time and enjoy every second of reading this book. It almost never happens, but it did with this book.

Have you read a book that you just want to read over and over?

Northanger Abbey, by Val McDermid

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How could I resist this book? I have long been a Jane Austen fan. Northanger Abbey may be my least favorite of her works, but it is still an enjoyable display of Austin’s satirical wit. I admit, though, that I’ve gotten a little tired of modern adaptations of Austen’s novels. I’m not a purist, but there are many books in my to-be-read pile, and I had been feeling that enough was enough.

What intrigued me here was Val McDermid’s name. I’m also a big fan of her crime novels: meticulously plotted, believable characters, satisfyingly dark and twisty, her mysteries set me puzzling through the clues while thoroughly immersed in the human dramas. Already pondering how Austen’s story could be updated to the modern day, I was further intrigued by the addition of this fabulously dark crime writer to the mix.

In Austen’s story, naïve Catherine Moreland goes with family friends to Bath to get her feet wet in the social season there. She is led astray by her worldly new friend Isabella Thorpe who introduces her to Gothic novels. They quickly become an addiction for Catherine. Isabella’s brother John, believing Catherine to be an heiress, makes a big play for her. At the same time, Catherine has met and become attracted to quiet clergyman Henry Tilney and his sister Eleanor. Thus, she finds herself pulled between the two families while coming to see the world through a Gothic lens.

Austen’s send-up of the then-new craze for Gothic novels is fun and witty, though a bit weak on plot and—at least for me—sufficiently complex characters. I could never quite believe the way Catherine is forgiven at the end of the book.

So I was curious to see how McDermid would translate this story into the modern day. There’s still plenty of naïveté to go around, even today with our sophisticated teens, and young women are still looking for the right man, even if not for the practical reasons common in Austin’s day. No problem there, but what about the rest?

McDermid cleverly sets her story in Edinburgh during Festival time, certainly as much of a social crush as Bath in Austen’s time. Her Cat Moreland is introduced to novels such as Twilight by her new friend Bella Thorpe, and Cat’s romantic fantasies begin to include sexy vampires along with the serious lawyer Henry Tilney. Communication is by text and Facebook rather than letters, though in the four years since this book was published, endlessly posting selfies to FaceBook seems to have waned among the young.

While these equivalencies are fun to enumerate, what’s amazing is the seamless way they are integrated into a story that closely follows the original, while standing just fine on its own. There’s plenty of satirical wit and lots of in-jokes too.

It’s a tour-de-force. Though I started out reading analytically, I quickly became absorbed in the story itself. I found the twists and turns quite satisfying, sufficiently different from Austen’s, while still appropriate for today, to delight me with their ingenuity.

Why would McDermid, a successful crime writer, take on such a project? Most of the writers I know like to challenge themselves. Perhaps they try a different genre or a different technique. They are constantly trying to improve their skills, no matter how successful they already are. Too, I believe that it is the project that terrifies you, the one you aren’t sure you’re up to but believe in your bones that you must write that becomes the most successful. The passion that you bring to it and the way you must dig deeply to rise to the challenge make it your best work.

Kudos to McDermid for a job well done!

Have you read an adaptation of a Jane Austen novel that you thought was particularly successful?

Open City, by Teju Cole

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Julius, a medical student from Nigeria in New York City on a psychiatry fellowship, starts walking around the city in his free time. Sometimes he has a particular destination, but more often he just sets off aimlessly. On his walks he sometimes notices other people or has brief encounters with strangers. Sometimes he visits a former professor, now old and in poor health. Mostly, though, he lets his thoughts wander, ranging over his past and future and that of the city.

There is a long tradition of mostly nonfictional accounts of walking journeys. Here, we are entirely in Julius’s mind and constrained by what he chooses to reveal. Remembered scenes are recounted through his filter. In a novel like this, without other characters—the few who appear more than once are only sketched in—or a traditional narrative with dramatised scenes, what holds a reader’s attention is the quality of those thoughts.

Julius is in his early 30s, so his thoughts have an existential tilt. Within the mosaic of the city’s streets and his life there, both of them shadowed by the events in their pasts, he thinks about death, how he has gotten to this place, and what “this place” is. He questions his choice of profession and even if psychiatry can actually help people.

He appears to be an extreme introvert. At the start of the novel he has more or less broken up with his girlfriend of a few months; they have drifted apart since she moved cross-country. He has one, unnamed friend—referred to only as “my friend”—who moves away by the end of the novel. He enjoys his new activity of occasionally visiting with his former professor, but the professor dies. He encounters a woman from home who remembers him, but he seems not to remember her. Meanwhile, he walks alone.

I was intrigued by the form of this novel and surprised that it held my attention as much as it did. Julius is an unreliable narrator, but we only have his words and perceptions to go on, so that added a level of interest. I was curious to see how Cole would bring structure to the seemingly random string of events. The structure he worked in was subtle but sound.

Also I have long been enthralled with the way the past colors the present, especially in terms of places. I loved W. G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn and knew that Cole counted Sebald as one of his big influences. However, I would have enjoyed the book more if I lived in New York City. Cole takes it for granted that we know all these places—streets, neighborhoods, buildings—and for the most part doesn’t bother describing them. Since the city is the main character, this lack left a huge emptiness in the center of the book.

The other lack I felt as I finished the book was the sense of an ending. Nothing was resolved; the questions that were raised throughout the book were not answered; Julius seemed to have achieved no insight into his own heart or integration of his divided self.

Cole’s voice, filtered through Julius, stays with me, despite some of the flaws in this novel. I will certainly read more of his work.

What account—fiction or nonfiction—of a walking journey have you read? What did you think of it?